SEX OR BONBONS:
The issue of stereotypes faced by readers and writers of romantic fiction has struck a chord. I’ve received many more responses than can possibly be published in this column. Here, however, are a smattering of comments received, starting with those by authors Jo Beverley and Julia Quinn.
From Jo Beverley: “I try to ignore it a lot of the time, but unlike some I do think it important to politely contest negative comments. They come out of ignorance, and if no one says anything, the people will stay ignorant.”From Julia Quinn: “I do occasionally get asked when I’m going to write a ‘real book’ by someone I meet at a booksigning. I always reply, ‘This is a real book. Read it and see’.”
A variety of readers weighed in with their responses. Francis-from-Florida reflected on her college years and recalled that, “. . .I remember a very good English Lit teacher constantly expounding ‘The purpose of the novel is not to teach’! – I am constantly referencing that quote! She never did say what the novel’s purpose is – but one thing, it’s supposed to be is entertainment! — and let’s hear it for those who like to swim, vs those who golf, those who garden vs hike. . . .”
Her comments jump-started the left/analytical part of my brain. After heavy-duty pondering, I decided that, beyond the fact that romance is written for women by women, the sheer volume of romances released each month causes many to look at the genre and think the books are being churned out like assembly-line widgets. And, the old stereotype of bodice-rippers still exists — people out there believe romances are nothing more than “masturbation manuals”.
One frequent RReader visitor commented: “My brother claims that if you take a romance novel and hold it by the binding it will fall open to a sex scene. He claims that is because we have broken the binding by reading it over and over again.” She went on to say that, “One of the things that makes me the maddest is when they comment on your reading that ‘trash’, yet when asked the most ambitious reading endeavor they have taken on in the last six months is leafing through ‘Cosmo’ or ‘Field and Stream’. My thought is always, at least I read. You know, last I checked I was an adult, so why is it people feel the need to comment when ever I buy a romance?”
Another reader recalled that, “When my husband and I (both senior citizens) were on the airport bus after the RWA Conference in Hawaii, as soon as one of the passengers learned I wrote romances, one man nudged my husband and said, ‘I’ll bet you enjoy the research.'”
YES, ROMANCES CAN BE QUITE SEXY, but not necessarily more so than the latest Judith Krantz or a plethora of other best-sellers. It’s just that every kiss and caress is an event in a romance. I always try to remember that men have problems with feelings and emotions — and most critics are men.
Yet another reader reminded me of the research that goes into writing an historical romance. I echo her comments about the value of reading historical romance: I know more about European history, the Civil War, and the Westward Movement in America than I did before I began reading novels. I appreciate well- researched settings and knowing how the characters feel about their society’s mores and taboos.
Several other readers tied the sex issue together with “the cover issue”.
“Raven Fan” recognized herself in the “apologetic & embarrassed stance”. She added, “Funny how that doesn’t keep me from reading what I darn well please! I brazenly take the books with ‘guy mounting her’ (as my teenage son calls them!) covers anywhere I go. Other peoples’ opinions rankle me, but don’t change my reading taste. To each their own! There’s room for all of us on this planet. I won’t waste my valuable reading time getting into a no-win verbal battle with some snob.”
A reader from Illinois had this to say: “If anybody’s that interested in what a woman next to them in an airport’s reading, that person should either strike up a conversation, or get a life. As you can probably tell, I’ve never been embarrassed by covers either. The only time I’ve ever squirmed as a romance reader was when I saw a book titled The Love Slave by Beatrice Small.”
Site visitor Cindy responded with this e-mail: “I won’t be announcing my, ahem, credentials, since many of my friends who love reading romance novels are intelligent thinking and feeling women, so I don’t have that complex amongst other readers of romance novels. But I still feel uncomfortable amongst some people I don’t know well, should the topic romance novels come up! Like, ‘You’re just sexually frustrated’ kind of stuff. Concerning book covers — I don’t think having a drawing of a man and woman helps sell the novel. For one thing, I read my books on the subway and I get a little embarrassed by some of the covers.”
Author Danelle Harmon, a woman with a wicked sense of humor, supplied me with these anecdotes, adding she has many more in her arsenal.
For one book-signing in a department store, she was set up in the bedding department. In another instance, a woman told her that her “daughter reads those trash books all the time.” Danelle’s response? “I smiled just as sweetly and replied, “Really? Well, I don’t consider what I write to be ‘trash’. That shut her up in a hurry, and she apologized ’til there was no tomorrow.”
Danelle also relayed a potentially embarrassing incident that happened on a radio show in Massachusetts. The DJ tried to trap her, continually asking in a sly, cajoling manner, “So, Danelle, just where do you get your ideas?” When she attempted to reign him in, he became exasperated and said, “I’m talking about the sex!”
She went on to say that, “It was only after the interview that I figured out a way to really get this guy and turn this around to my advantage. I sent an autographed copy of Pirate in my Arms to the DJ, and in it, put a little note: ‘Thank you so much for your interview. And as for that question you kept asking me, about where I get my ideas from? From experience! All the best, Danelle Harmon.’ Snickering, I sat back and waited for the bomb to drop. Sure enough, a couple days later a friend came up to me and casually remarked, ‘I heard about you on the radio this morning, Danelle.’ He then repeated what had been said: that the DJ had read aloud my inscription to him, on the radio, to a third of the entire state of Massachusetts! Several days later, the book jumped back onto the local bestseller list.”
If you haven’t joined in the fray about stereotypes or would like to weigh in with your opinion on covers, please e-mail me here. As to my questions about covers, you know the drill — do you prefer step-backs, jeweled/flowered covers, depictions of models, etc. Are you bothered by pictures that don’t match the author’s descriptions? Do you wonder why most heroes depicted have no body hair? Do you prefer to imagine what the hero and heroine look like? And, do you ever wonder why there is such a focus on covers when readers are truly only interested on what’s inside the book?
WHAT ABOUT THOSE HEROES?
After receiving Danelle’s e-mail, I was reminded of her books, in which the heroes are most definitely of the traditional alpha-male variety. The traditional alpha-male, of course, is dangerous, brooding (possibly tortured), arrogant, and sexy. Johanna Lindsey’s, Jude Deveraux’s and Iris Johansen’s heroes fit this mold as well.
There is another type of alpha-male, sort of a new-age version. This type of alpha male is emotionally closed-off, scheduled, ordered, and also arrogant and sexy. Some prime examples of this type of hero are Lord Wycliffe in Deborah Simmons’ The Vicar’s Daughter, the Duke of Heathcourte in Rebecca Paisley’s A Basket of Wishes, and the Duke of Belmore from Jill Barnett’s Bewitching.
Juxtaposed against the traditional and new-age alpha male is an altogether different kind of hero, as typified by Clayton Holland, the hero of Lorraine Heath’s stunning Always to Remember. He is perhaps the closest to a flesh-and-blood hero I have ever read. He is not arrogant, but he is definitely sexy. And he is most definitely a hero.
I went through my library searching for other heroes who were neither traditional nor new-age alpha heroes. My very short list included:
Jamie Frasier of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series
Struan Rossmara of Stella Cameron’s Bride
Ian Fraser of Kathryn Lynn Davis’ Too Deep for Tears
Burke Drummond of Catherine Coulter’s Night Fire
John Blackwood of Julia Quinn’s Dancing At Midnight
Matt Richards of Catherine Hart’s Irresistible
Count them – there are six such heroes out of more than 150 romances I’ve read. What is it about the alpha male that we find so attractive? Think about this — our husbands and lovers are not alpha males. What would we do in real life if we encountered such an arrogant man?
What would you do if you met a hero written by Johanna Lindsey, Katherine Sutcliffe, or Anne Stuart?
What would you do if you met a man considered dangerous by everyone on the planet — except you?
What would you do if you met a man thought to have murdered his first wife?
Would you stick around, as our heroines do, working to transform these men? Or would you do as I would, and run for the hills? I’d like to know what you think about these questions. What flesh-and-blood heroes have you read and enjoyed? I’d also like to know which traits in “real” men matter most to you — would they sound wimpy in a romance? Click here to respond.
HOW IS A ROMANCE LIKE AN ARTICHOKE?
LUSCIOUS LOVE STORIES:
SILLY SEX –
A few brave souls have ventured forth to reveal their thoughts on this touchy topic. Let’s all loosen up a bit first with some (really) silly sex. My top two candidates for all-time silliest sex terms are “manroot” and “honey-pot”.
From Dagna K. comes this snippet: “My vote for silly/overused words that will ruin a sex scene: ‘throbbing,’ ‘pulsating,’ and ‘turgid’ (which seems to belong in a dirty limerick that starts “There once was a floozy named Ingrid. . .”). Any two together are enough to make me throw the book across the room. But then, I find straightforward descriptions much more erotic than purple prose.”
From author Karen Harbaugh: “I think Ken Follett referred to the male member as a ‘purple tulip.’ — Uh huh. I’m not letting something that looks like a purple tulip get near me!”
From site visitor Julia: “There are a lot of funny metaphors to designate the genitals and I have a lot of fun with them: there are a lot of throbbing shafts or manhood, plenty of turgid nipples (BTW they have replaced the very famous -rosy peaks- in older Harlequins ), but they don’t spoil the love scene for me. The best for me has always been one that has been in circulation for a long time in Harlequin Presents books: the guy who has hard thighs. Now, that’s a displacement that always makes me laugh.”
Tina, “whose throbbing brain cells are pulsing with thought”, says that references to throbbing or pulsing manhood makes her “think of a cartoon character”. And, Leslie McClain, editor and publisher of The Romance Reader, says, “If I have to read about petals opening one more time, I think I’ll barf right on someone’s manroot!“
LET’S GET SERIOUS –
For those readers brave enough to venture into such dangerous waters, thank you for your responses. All you others out there – it’s not too late to send in your responses. Just click here.
This reader summed up my feelings quite well. Here’s what Catherine Allen wrote: “I’m not sure I have a preference as to how hot the scenes should be but they need to satisfy a fundamental romantic criteria. I feel as though they should convey to the reader that the men are experiencing something beyond any previous encounter. I think the woman should feel gorgeous and special. That is what I look for. Take McNaught’s A Kingdom of Dreams, she (the heroine) was the best thing that ever happened to him and he was her savior. I felt that in the love scenes and even when they were fighting.”
“Raven Fan” responded with, “I generally prefer Rs (as in R-rated). I love a good story first. It needs to have well-rounded, full-bodied characterization that I can relate to; hero and heroines that I can understand why they connect. I like to know both of their points-of-view. I prefer a story where the sexual tension builds and builds, and I prefer 2-3 steamy love scenes. If there is only 1scene I feel cheated. Usually Harper Monograms let me down in the ‘sizzle factor’.”
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH? –
Prodigy pal Andrea thinks that Jane Feather writes the most luscious of love stories. According to Andrea, Feather exceeds the 3-scene rule but is never gratuitous. “Each scene does a lot to show the state of affairs between the h/h. In some books they are deeply in love and the scenes show just how much, in others they are at odds but there is an underlying feeling that their lovemaking is an act of magic.”
Andrea also had this to say, “Bertrice Small is in a class by herself and her sexy harem type books are always fun to read. She is the only writer that can get away with both h/h having multiple partners. I can never put up with that in other books. Small seems to be able to carry it off for some reason.”
I’m afraid Andrea is alone in the case of Bertrice Small. I have received several responses from readers who believe she goes too far in her sex scenes (I can’t bring myself to call them love scenes). One long-time internet friend recently asked me if I had ever read Skye O’Malley? She then told me that, “I hated it so much. . . I wanted to give up reading it so many times and finally did near the end. I just could not take anymore. It was the sorriest excuse for a book that I have ever seen and I thought that I had seen it recommended on a BB as a great read. Maybe I was mistaken. It is hard for me to believe that anyone could like this book. It had over 20 sex scenes, rape, incest, whores, harems, prostitutes, bi-sexuality. . . I do think the author went way overboard!”
This response is echoed by Wylinda, a frequent Rreader site visitor: “I just finished Hellion. I did have a problem with some of her terming in the book. Who likes to read ‘her love channel’? I also have a problem with the F-word. Am I the only one who has this problem? Call me different, but I don’t think the F-word belongs in a romance when the hero and heroine are talking to each other.”
Catherine Allen said, “I know that Bertrice Small can write some really hot books but I personally don’t like them. I’m probably one of the only ones around but I’ve read at least five of her books and hated all of them.”
Another reader lumped Thea Devine together with Bertrice Small as “just way over the top for me. In those books the story, or plot, is just a secondary vehicle employed to get these writers’ wildest sexual fantasies published!! They’re pornography and I don’t prefer to waste my time reading those books anymore.”
One reader wrote that “with the overwhelmingly sensual scenes from most of the books today, I think that subtlety should be exercised more often. It usually brings out the best. Too much is redundant and excessive. Boring also. I hope I got that out of my system.”
HOW ANNOYING! –
Other readers objected to the male-dominating, controlling sex that figure prominently in many romances. Iris Johansen and Samantha James were two authors singled out by readers. In response to my review of Just One Kiss, I received this e-mail: “If you thought Just One Kiss was bad, you should read Gabriel’s Bride. The hero marries the heroine to spite his father and he never treats her with much respect ie. accusing her of sleeping with his friend etc. There is never much equality or respect between the h/h. I don’t like it when the hero is blatantly controlling/manipulating the heroine by way of sex. It gets boring after reading so many books where the women just lie there and let the men dominate them.”
Still others are as annoyed as I am to read books where the only rapport between the hero and heroine exists in bed. One frequent site visitor wrote that, “I might as well read stories from the Forum magazines! A good romance needs a good rapport between the hero and heroine and it needs to show the readers, the two characters are really in love with each other. I can never believe the two characters love each other (in some books). They are always fighting, doubting and discrediting each other until the last chapter!”
LISTING OF LUSCIOUS LOVE STORIES –
Wolf’s Embrace by Gail Link (says Nina Davis, “My fave all-time love scene that has made me wear out the section of the book: the parting scene between Clair and Bran. And they aren’t the even the main characters.”)
Shattered Rainbows by Mary Jo Putney (says Cindy, “The love scenes. . . are very romantic with the hero thinking of the heroine’s needs before his own. These two are very equal and their relationship is very realistic. There is even one scene where the hero feels so ashamed because he gets too intense in one love scene — he’s even trembling from guilt!”)
Rebellious Desire, Lion’s Lady, Guardian Angel, The Gift, Castles, Saving Grace, The Secret, The Prize, and The Bride by Julie Garwood
Night Storm, the Magic trilogy, and The Sherbrooke Bride, by Catherine Coulter
Bride by Stella Cameron
Bewitching by Jill Barnett
Basket of Wishes by Rebecca Paisley
The Vicar’s Daughter by Deborah Simmons
Splendid by Julia Quinn
Irresistible by Catherine Hart
Rebellious Bride by Donna Fletcher
Princess Annie by Linda Lael Miller
His Lady’s Ransom by Merline Lovelace
Rendezvous by Amanda Quick
The Scoundrel by Debra Dier
A Gentle Feuding by Johanna Lindsey
The Tiger Lily, Midnight Masquerade, While Passion Sleeps, and Gypsy Lady by Shirlee Busbee
Ashes in the Wind, The Wolf & the Dove and The Flower & the Flame by Kathleen Woodiwiss
Fair is the Rose by Meagan McKinney
A Fire in the Heart by Katherine Sutcliffe
When the Splendour Falls by Laurie McBain
Only His by Elizabeth Lowell
After the Night, Dream Man, and Midnight Rainbow by Linda Howard
One Summer by Karen Robards
Knight of a Trillion Stars by Dara Joy
Exposure by Susan Andersen
Lost In My Dreams by Faye Ashley
Slow Heat in Heaven by Sandra Browm
Taboo by Olivia Rupprecht
Sweet Liar by Jude Deveraux
Love’s Charade, Silver Nights, Smuggler’s Lady, Beloved Emeny, and The Eagle & the Dove by Claudia Bishop aka Jane Feather
LISTING OF FAVORITE FUNNIES –
A few more titles have been sent in for our listing of Favorite Funnies. Here is our new listing:
Bewitching and Dreaming by Jill Barnett
Basket of Wishes by Rebecca Paisley
The Vicar’s Daughter by Deborah Simmons
Splendid by Julia Quinn
The collected works of Julie Garwood
The collected works of Amanda Quick
The Gift by Julie Garwood
Knight of a Trillion Stars by Dara Joy
What the Lady Wants by Jennifer Crusie
One for the Money and Two for the Dough by Janet Evanovich
Once Upon a Pirate by Nancy Block
The Bride Wore Spurs by Sharon Ihle
Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught
Heartstrings by Rebecca Paisley
Courting Miss Hattie by Pamela Morsi
Lady Reluctant by Maggie Osborne
Wild Western Desire by Catherine Johnson
Heather & Velvet by Teresa Medeiros
Lady Gallant by Suzanne Robinson
Kiss an Angel by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
TWO-HANKY READS – No new titles have been sent in. If you have missed this list in the past and would like a copy of it, please click here.
WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
Have you ever disliked a book highly recommended by everyone? That’s what reader Linda Williams wants to know. She doesn’t understand what readers see in Kathleen Woodiwiss. As for me, the answer is yes. I am likely the only person on the planet who traded in Judith McNaught’s Perfect. And, the only Laura Kinsale title I ever read was also the last. Apparently I’m not alone about Kinsale — RReader contributor Dede Anderson said, “Put me down for not understanding what it is that people see in Laura Kinsale. Her books just don’t do much for me and to some people she is the pinnacle of romance writers. I guess I’m missing something!”
What books have you disliked that others have raved about? And, are there books you have forced yourself to read even though you have disliked them? I have. I gritted my teeth throughout Dream Hunter by Laura Kinsale, Chandra, and Fire Song by Catherine Coulter. (Site visitor Mary McArdle, in reference to Fire Song as mentioned in last month’s column, has this to say about these two titles by Catherine Coulter: “I have stopped reading Catherine Coulter because she has at least two books in which the hero rapes someone — one of the episodes being deliberately set up to terrify his wife! I dislike the books so much that I have forgotten their names, although you mentioned one of them in your article.) Click here with your responses to these questions.
VIRGINITY – I DON’T GET IT!
So says reader Samantha Wharton. She is frustrated because in so many romances the “woman is only validated when it is discovered that she is, indeed, a virgin. What would happen if the woman was not a virgin? Would that mean the hero would never trust her? Why is it that the heroine trusts the hero and does not need that kind of proof to validate his value as a person?”
She adds that, “It has gotten to the point where I avoid certain authors because it seems demeaning to me that the male characters get to be accepted and loved for who they are and the female characters are put to this test to prove their worth (as if virginity come with some kind of merit badge announcing what a loyal, trustworthy, intelligent person you are).
Obviously the issue of virginity and the double standard has existed for centuries and is irritating beyond belief to anyone of even minimal feminist sensibilities. What is apparently more ridiculous is that, after marriage, from the medieval period through the regency period, fidelity was not really required of either the husband or the wife in the noble classes.
I don’t mind stories w/virginal women in them as long as they are historical romances. I cannot stomach, however, contemporaries with virgins. I haven’t been one since I was 17 and I think that’s the way it is for the majority of women in this country.
I’m glad that heroes in historicals are almost always not virgins. One of my favorite scenes in most stories is when the hero-as-legendary-lover introduces the virginal heroine to the delights of her own body and sex in general. Not only does the heroine have a wonderful experience, but the hero often learns the difference between lust and true love.
Many of my favorite stories do not make virginal heroines a major issue — it’s a fact that allows the hero to be tender but doesn’t really matter otherwise. However, there have been stories where it is an issue and, frankly, it works. Let’s face it — that’s the way it was in those days of old.
Thank goodness men and women these days can check out their sexual compatibility before marrying. But if you like to read historical romance, you can expect this to be a major plot point.
Readers, what do you think? Click here to respond.
UNTIL NEXT TIME:
Favorite plot-lines, over-used plot contrivances, and book length are issues about which I’d like your input. Please e-mail me about these subjects and we’ll discuss them in the next issue of Laurie’s News & Views. And, as always, click here to give me your feedback about the column in general or to receive back issues.
TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
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